Lao-WEN and Supreme Court meet to coordinate on wildlife crime
The meeting was co-chaired by Mr. Sivone Vongkhamchanh, head of Luang Prabang’s Provincial Agriculture and Forest Office (PAFO), Mr. Khamxay Chittakone Justice, Head of the Criminal Chamber of the Lao Supreme Court, and Mrs. Lomkham Sengchanoudom, Deputy Director General of DoFI.
The three co-chairs opened the meeting by agreeing that the participants had gathered to accomplish three main goals: 1) improve coordination on investigation and prosecution of wildlife crimes in Laos; 2) prepare for a proposed meeting of the Greater Mekong Regional Chief Justices to discuss cross border collaboration on prosecution of wildlife crimes; 3) share the challenges faced to date in bringing wildlife crimes to court in
There was widespread recognition that the legal structure currently in place – namely, the aquatic and wildlife law and section 9, article 131-137 of the penal code – deal explicitly with wildlife crimes. However, enforcement and prosecution of wildlife crimes should be stronger, with current penalties primarily remaining at the level of administrative fines and not reflecting the seriousness of the crimes committed.
“If Laos is to fulfill its commitments to International Wildlife Law Enforcement cooperation to treat wildlife crime as a serious crime, then current enforcement actions need to be elevated to the courts,” said Mr. Vongkhamchanh. “We have the laws, and we know the crimes are happening; we just need to connect the pieces.”
“We are all aware that the laws and penal codes are not being executed to the extent that they should, given that the penalties start at a minimum of 3 months in jail, and can be up to 10 years for serious offenses,” said Mr. Chitakone. “And yet only one case that I’m aware of has even been taken to court, let alone given the most minimal penalty. We are here to support our counterparts in the Lao Wildlife Enforcement Network (Lao-WEN) and Provincial Wildlife Law Enforcement (P-WEN) to build better wildlife cases, facilitate the necessary collaboration and build people’s capacity building.”
There was consensus that the coordination between enforcement, prosecution, and the court should be strengthened, especially since all of the agencies are already part of the Lao-WEN and P-WEN systems.
“DoFI, as the head of the Lao-WEN and as the CITES Management Authority for Laos, is grateful for the support shown by the prosecution and the court, and is looking forward to seeing how coordination can be improved,” said DDG Sengchanoudom. “There is always room for us to improve our investigative capacities and learn how to better build wildlife cases so that they not only go to court but that they result in punishments that fit the crimes.”
The proposed regional meeting of the Chief Justices has been identified as a way to achieve the shared goals of ASEAN within Laos and the other Greater Mekong countries. Since wildlife trafficking is the third-largest for of illegal trafficking, transnational solutions and cooperation must be galvanized to address it. This is especially critical given the rapid decline of wildlife in Laos and the region and given the likelihood that the current COVID-19 pandemic originated in the wildlife trade.
“We must find a way to collaborate better, not only for the biodiversity of Laos but for the health of our people,” added DDG Sengchanoudom. “This meeting is the first step towards achieving this goal.”
The meeting was attended by representatives from DoFI, the Criminal Chamber of the Lao Supreme Court, the Customs Department, the Office of the Supreme People’s Prosecutor, and representatives from the Provincial WENs of Vientiane Captial, Bokeo, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, and Oudomxay, as well as WWF-Laos.